If tobacco wasn’t your thing in the first part of the 20th century, you could build a nice collection of baseball cards with your sweet tooth.
As baseball began to immerse itself into the American culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, cigarette manufacturers began to insert trading cards into their product packaging to entice buyers. This passion to collect cards grew, and by the time World War I ended and into the 1930’s many caramel companies joined in the game and began issuing baseball cards with their products, this time with the focus on enticing children to buy.
One of these was the American Caramel Company, which appeared on the scene in 1888 when two of the Hershey company’s main competitors merged and bought the rights to Hershey’s caramel operation. Packaging their sweet product with the promise of a baseball card was a huge incentive to their young consumers, and they eventually issued some of the most highly prized cards for today’s vintage baseball card collectors. Each box of caramels featured one card wrapped inside so that kids could collect their own cards. There is also a possibility that the company might have distributed “strip cards” which were cut apart either by the seller or the collector. These are listed under “W” in the current card catalogs while caramel cards are listed as “E”.
The cards issued by the American Caramel Company have become classics to find for vintage baseball card collectors, and one premier example is the E90-1 set made in the period of 1909-1911. One card that is highly prized from this set is Joe Jackson’s rookie card. In the picture Shoeless Joe leans on his personal bat as a member of the Philadelphia Athletics. It’s become one of the most collectible in this series, which features an estimated total of over 100 total cards in the set. A high grade Jackson sold this year for over $79,000. This is the set that is the easiest to start with out of the many groups for most collectors to find, but many are still rare within the set.
The E90-2 series, which was probably either issued exactly 100 years ago, features the World Championship Pittsburgh Pirates. There are color backgrounds in red, blue and green. The big ticket here is the Honus Wagner card, far more scarce than the T206 Wagner. Backs of the E-90-2 cards are identical to the E-90-1 series. These cards are rare and getting an entire set together is very difficult.
The E90-3 set features twenty cards and came out in 1910 or 1911 with exclusively Cubs and White Sox players. It has two cards that are difficult to locate: Frank Chance of the Cubs and Chick Gandil from the White Sox. Gandil’s card has the distinction of showcasing him as one of the ill fated members of the “Black Sox” team and is extremely popular with collectors.
Another set issued by the company was the E125 set American Caramel Die-Cuts which were issued in 1910 but remained undiscovered on the collector market until the 1960s . Wagner joins Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank and several other Hall of Famers in this set. One card was included in each caramel package and the exact measurement varied according to the player’s pose, which could be around seven inches tall. There was even the added bonus of the cards being designed with parts that could moved to make the player stand upright. This particular issue set is very collectible and is highly sought after.
Except for a set issued in 1915 (E-106), American Caramel slowed production of its baseball card sets from 1911-1920 but returned in1921 with E-121, a set of 80 cards that was rare if only for the fact that it brought Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth together into one set in the E-card family. Ruth actually has two cards in the series which also includes the likes of John McGraw, Johnny Evers, Walter Johnson and Grover Cleveland Alexander. The players are featured in black and white photographs in a variety of poses hitting, catching, throwing, and various others.
The advent of World War I stopped much of baseball card production due to the harder economic times that ensued. This was a different story in the period of the 1920’s and 1930’s when production was up and running strong, bringing with it better designed and even more popular sets. Many are rare to find, and go for high prices when put up for auction. E120 brought Ruth, Cobb and 125 other players back into the fold. The design was identical to the 1921 series. E120 bulked up to 240 cards and included team checklists on the back.
American Caramel was the victim of strong competition in the caramel-making industry and its 1927 series of 60 was its last. The 60-card set is scarce but differ from most in that they are numbered. The backs contain an offer for collectors to acquire an album to hold the cards. The Ruth card is among the hobby’s extremely rare finds.
The American Caramel Company shared its part in early baseball card history and left collectors beautiful examples of creativity and design that honored some of the game’s greatest players. Only lasting six years as a business venture, it eventually went out of the card business when its doors closed. But its contribution to collecting is still prominent as the results of any major vintage baseball card auction demonstrate.